Housing refugees in camps, designed originally to be a short-term solution, has more often become a protracted life of misery for millions of refugees. Camps have been the quick fix and easy solution – not only for host governments, but also for the international humanitarian assistance community. It’s easier to feed and shelter refugees if they’re all together in one place. We can count them and decide assistance needs based on identifiable numbers.
Self-settlement in cities and rural areas, where refugees mix with local populations and international aid is used to reinforce impacted services and infrastructure, would be far preferable, more dignified and more cost-effective in the long term. This ideal, though, is difficult to implement in reality. Self-settlement works when refugees can access jobs and economic opportunities. Not only do many refugee hosting governments restrict refugees’ right to work, many of the hosting countries struggle with stagnant markets and high unemployment rates among their own citizens. Two-thirds of all refugees are hosted by the world’s less-developed nations.
There are no quick fixes. We do know, however, that those refugees who live in urban areas contribute to local economic growth. They bring in new skills and increase market demand. Somali refugees in the Eastleigh district of Nairobi, Kenya, for example, have turned that once downtrodden neighborhood into a vibrant market center. The challenge of the donor and humanitarian assistance community is in tapping the skills and experiences refugees possess and using them to stimulate economic growth in refugee-impacted cities and rural areas and using donor assistance to build, rehabilitate, expand and staff host government services in impacted areas – schools, clinics, hospitals and roads – thereby benefitting host communities for the long term.
Camps may be the easy solution and they may be necessary during emergencies or in the case of huge influxes – like the Somali influx into Kenya – for the short term but isn’t it time to deal with complex problems the right way even if it’s the hard way?
Read about the Women's Refugee Commission’s work on urban refugees here.